Education heads election agenda

March 2, 2007

Australian higher education is likely to be a key issue in this year's federal election. The topic is high on the agenda of the Labor Party, whose new leader, Kevin Rudd, has attacked the Government over funding policies for universities and for raising tuition charges.

Labor notes that, since the conservative Government of Prime Minister John Howard took office in 1996, the cost of a degree has more than doubled for many courses.

Medical students face fees of more than A$50,000 (£20,225) to graduate - a A$30,000 rise over ten years - while engineering students must pay A$30,000, up from less than half that amount a decade ago.

"How can universities expect to attract the best minds when many young people cannot afford the education they need to get a job?" a Labor spokesman asked. "The Government is mortgaging our future with these massive hikes."

Labor's claims have the backing of the Australian Vice-Chancellors'

Committee, which said it was time the Government considered ways of boosting university finances other than raising tuition fees. The vice-chancellors said that putting more demands on students would be unreasonable.

Labor has released a 100-page White Paper on higher education, research and innovation that sets out its broad polices. It says that greater Higher Education Contribution Scheme costs, and correspondingly high graduate debt, might be deterring able students from enrolling.

Options put forward by Labor include across-the-board cuts in Hecs charges; an increase in the number or size of targeted scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds; cancelling the Hecs debt of graduates in fields such as nursing and teaching; and boosting student income support to those from poor families.

Labor has also promised to prohibit universities from charging local students full tuition costs.

Julie Bishop, the Education Minister, defended the decision to allow universities to increase Hecs fees. She said graduates received big returns on their investment in a university education.

She said that more than 90 per cent of students had a job within four months of leaving university, they earned more than non-graduates and their average lifetime earnings were far in excess of those without a degree.

Students could see the benefits of going to university and were "voting with their feet", she said.

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